The article that follows is the beginning of Alexander Campbell’s article, written in 1839, criticizing the gaudy appearance of Christians in worship. He argues that reverence for God is better expressed in sackcloth than in fashion.
God is greatly to be feared In the assembly of tin saints, and to be bad in reverence of all that are about him.—- Psalm 89:7
A deep and radical reformation of all things connected with religious meetings, whether ordinary or extraordinary, is indispensable to the edification of Christians and the conversion of sinners. Our meetings of all sorts are greatly defective in many respects, and in none more visibly than in the dress and manners of the professed worshipers. The present costumes and general display are in extremely bad taste. They are so in the judgment of all well informed men of sense, out of the church; and certainly of all persons in the church of unquestionable piety .
There is a congruity between persons, places, and employments, which never can be violated without detriment and disgust, if there are any persons of good education present. To see worshipers appear in church as at a marriage feast, a presidential levee, a theatre, a dance — either in dress, manners, or general demeanor— strikes all persons of reflection as snow in summer, or a plaudit in the midst of a prayer.
We Americans are in advance of our English and European ancestors in this general apostasy from good taste and good sense. In the political and fashionable church of England at home — even in the metropolis of the empire itself, whither the grandees of the earth resort, there is not such a revolting incongruity between the dress and general appearance of noble lords and ladies, as is found in many of our backwoods meeting-houses. On the Sabbath and in the cathedral the nobility dress in their plainest garb. They reserve their splendid equipage, their courtly attire, their gems and coronets, their glittering decorations for courts and carnivals, for tilts and tournaments, and appear in the sanctuary as though they sought not to be worshiped, but to worship God. But we frequent the houses of prayer and the places of worship with all our “finery” upon us, as though our synagogues were theatres of fashion -— and the “Ladies’ Book,” rather than the New Testament, was the guide of our devotions.
If, then the outward garb be an Index to the soul, or resembles the ruling passions within, how unwelcome are such worshipers at the footstool of the Almighty; and how unfit to offer acceptable sacrifices upon the altar of Christian worship! Can any one imagine that the sacrifices of such persons are the offerings of an humble mind, a broken heart, a contrite spirit, that trembles at the word of God? May we not rather say with the Prophet of Israel, “The show of their countenance doth witness against them;” for the daughters of Zion thus attired “are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a tinkling with their feet”? Surely this is not “the beauty of holiness,” — “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, in the sight of God of great value.”
Kings and Prophets, the saints and martyrs of other times, were oftener seen in sackcloth and ashes than in the gaudy fashions of a flippant and irreverent age. Their sense of propriety forbade that soul and body should disagree — that the outward man should betray the inward, and falsify the state of the mind. The Jews’ religion taught men congruity, and especially that the exterior attire should always correspond with the inward plainness and simplicity of the heart.
“Slovenly neglect and rustic coarseness,” though also incongruous with good Christian taste, are nevertheless more tolerable in Christian assemblies, than the gaiety and style now in vogue amongst the American communities: for, as a chaste and sensible Christian poet has said —
“A heavenly mind
May be indifferent to her house of clay,
And slight the hovel as beneath her care;
Bow how a body so fantastic, trim,
And quaint In its deportment and attire,
Can lodge a heavenly mind, demands a doubt.”
A very strong doubt, indeed! We trust, then, that among all the disciples of Christ there will be a very great reformation in this particular. They are by no means generally more exemplary than others in their dress and manners, or in their marked reverence for the institutions of religious worship. Gravity, sincerity, simplicity, humility, and spirituality are not more comely than requisite to our spiritual attainments and happiness. It is impossible to grow in grace, to improve in any of the Christian virtues, or to increase in the rational and moral enjoyments of our Christian profession, unless there is a perfect harmony in all our actions and professions. We are necessarily much influenced by external circumstances: our spirits are in our bodies, and our bodies are in our apparel; therefore, what we see and feel upon our persons must quite as much affect ourselves as our neighbors. Let any one who doubts try a few experiments upon himself: let him dress himself in the proud costumes of the reigning fashions in Paris, London, or New York, and approach the sanctuary of the Lord: let him enter into his closet and shut, the door, and pray to his Father who sees him in the secret place, and ask himself how he feels in communion with God, caparisoned with all the vain trimmings and blandishments of dissipated fancy upon him. Or let him approach the Lord’s table in company with the saints who celebrate the Christian passover; and while he muses on the sufferings and death of the Son of God, hanging almost naked on the cursed tree, ignominiously expiring between two noted malefactors, let him look into his ruffled bosom, upon his golden trinkets, and fantastic apparel, and ask himself how this comports with all the affections of his heart absorbed in the contemplations of the judgment hall, the pretorium, and Mount Calvary. Then let him change his apparel, sell his finery, and gold to those who can afford no higher honors, no brighter glories — give the proceeds to the poor, and dress himself according to the Christian mirror, in the plainest and most unassuming garb, and try himself kneeling or lying upon the earth, in some deep cavern, in some lonely alcove, in some deep forest, or in the secret chamber in the lonely hour of even, or at midnight, and see how he feels in converse with his Divine Father, or seated thus among the faithful at the communion board, compared with himself on former occasions, with all the pride of fashion thickly set upon him. I am willing that his verdict, faithfully rehearsed, be final on any issue formed against my views of these congruities for which I plead.
But it is not only in this single item of dress that our public worshiping assemblies call for instant and thorough reformation. Our manners, I mean those of this age, are not sacred. Our attitude, our countenances, our demeanor, are not reverential: we feel not that we stand on holy ground, and therefore we do not loose our shoes from off our feet. The vacant state, the wandering eye, the dissipated countenance, to any nothing of the foolish levity or pharisaic disdain, proclaim that our hearts are not engaged in spirit and in truth while we are professedly worshiping the Lord.
Excerpt from Alexander Campbell, “Worshipping Assemblies — No. 1: The Appearance of Things, The Millennial Harbinger, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1839.